Alcoholism is not funny. It is horrible, destructive and still woefully positioned as a “weakness” or “choice” despite its categorization as a disease for over 50 years by the American Medical Association. So, with this reminder that we shouldn't make jokes, let's make jokes.
When Bart Simpson won a wad of cash in his settlement from Krusty The Clown after swallowing a jagged metal "O" in his morning cereal, his young mind reeled in anticipation. He pictured himself at a roulette table, dressed in tie and tails, high ball in hand, buxom women hanging on either side of him. “$500 on red!” he declared, but the croupier (and lady luck) responded “Black.” His chips were taken, the women fled, and the busted young Simpson hung his head in despair. Dissolve back to the daydreaming Bart, gleam in his eye, who can only utter one word: "Cool!"
Who among us can claim to have seen the desperate and downtrodden and not envied them? Think of the freedom! Maybe I'm revealing a bit too much about myself, but I keep wondering when I'll have my year of absolute drunken depravity, getting into fistfights and living in transient hotels. Because, by God, the movies have made it look, in the words of that impressionable young idiot Bart Simpson, “cool!”
Undoubtedly the most romanticized poet-warrior-boozehound of the second half of the 20th Century is Charles Bukowski. (Important note: Hunter Thompson and his hallucinogens take a backseat to the madness found in distilled spirits. There's something of a classicists' edge to a demon found so easily in a bottle.)
When Barbet Schroeder met Bukowski he asked why the deeply autobiographical author had a several-year gap in his collections. “Because I was drunk,” he responded. “Great, let's make a movie about it,” was the logical step they both took. The result is Barfly, a harrowing look into the mundane struggles of a drunkard - or so they would like you to believe! So what is Barfly really? A make-believe la la fable about just how awesome it would be to throw your life into drink.
Next time you see some wino on the street, be steadied in the knowledge that his life is not agonizing boredom tempered by lifesaving libations. It is a roller coaster ride filled with fisticuffs, picking up strange women, getting seduced by magazine editors, engaging in very important and highly emotional discussions over grave socio-political matters (albeit often slurred), not-unwelcome mixed company flatulence and having everybody love you if you can pay for a round. The only truly depressing thing about alcoholics one learns from Barfly is that if they make a film about it, it will jinx the lead actor, in this case Mickey Rourke, into never making another film half as good again.
As Henry Chinaski (Charles Bukowski's longtime alter ego) Rourke is unstoppable. He gets under the skin of this role, exposing himself in the least flattering ways, sticking his belly out, farting (I mentioned that already), acting greedy and childish and needy and getting beat up a lot. By Sylvester Stallone's brother, no less. There's nothing cooler than a guy who gets beat up a lot. What romanticizes Chinaski's alcoholism so much is that we know he'll snap out of it, become a famous author and then write about his alcoholism – so, therefore, it is okay to root for him. We know it is temporary, so it loses its fatalistic edge. We can glow in these freewheelin' days, and laugh as Chinaski blows what little money he has on a round for the house. And every lit major can raise a glass and quote Mickey Rourke: "To all my friends!!!"
Barfly came out in 1987. Just shy of a decade later, at the apex of American Independent Cinema's Great Awakening (when phrases like “a Miramax movie” could be understood by more than just insiders), actor Steve Buscemi wrote, directed and starred in one of the greatest shaggy dog films of all time: Trees Lounge.
Trees Lounge is set in a strange blue collar paradise on the border between Long Island and Queens, New York that people may think is phony, but I know is real. Buscemi plays a loser named Tommy who hangs out at a bar. That's it. That's not enough of a story for you? Well fuck you and fuck your whole family.
Tommy's a mostly lovable guy – an unemployed mechanic with a busted car, estranged from his relatives, the possible father of his ex-girlfriend's baby and only gettin' action from the 16-year-old daughter of his friend. The medical and social dangers of alcoholism take a backseat to this deadpan summer's tale, though a thick fog of minty urinal cakes waft throughout the story. The bar is the only outlet for Tommy, the only thing happening in his life, the only place where Tommy even has the potential for feeling content. When Tommy has to leave the safe zone to go blunder through another day of poor decisions, there will usually be a can of beer close by, a visual aid for the film, but a vital crutch for Tommy. Tommy lives in a close circle of friends, all of whom hurt one another, but all of whom care for one another the way only working class people can - they understand each other.
Buscemi is such a good actor that this life, so depressing on paper, is somewhat… cuddly. We wind up envying Tommy for his freedom. Only in the movies would a drunk pose no threat to safety. Only in the movies could a drunk exist in a world totally ruled by his own code. The code: get booze, crack jokes, duke it out, go in for a hug.
Significantly less huggable, but upping the adventure ante, is 1971's Wake In Fright. Newly rereleased (by Drafthouse Films! But this movie was on our list before we realized that), Wake In Fright is a descent into a beer-frenzied hell of misplaced machismo.
The Australian outback seems, at first, a welcoming place. Are you a mild mannered schoolteacher with some free time and a little wanderlust? But no money and no place to hang your hat? No problem – a fella from down the pub will invite you for a drink and introduce you to his friends. Next thing you know you're tussling with bleeding kangaroos in their death throes and sleeping in a urine-soaked shack. More than any other film on this list Wake In Fright is the most typically cautionary about the dangers of alcohol abuse, but it is so peculiar in its specificity that even after suffering with the protagonist through his grueling odyssey, it's hard to not want to try it out yourself. (Maybe wiser people disagree?)
The TCM lover's (would be) cautionary drunk film, however, is Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend. The best picture/actor/director/screenplay Oscar winner from 1945 is a dark and somber film about a destructive loser who won't rest until he pushes away everyone dear to him, including his former idealistic self. Who among us wouldn't wish to spit in the face of charity and instead scratch the itch of self-pity?
Ray Milland plays the wan wino Don Birnam. He's rude to his financially supportive brother, to the upwardly mobile Time Magazine-worker fiancée who loves him and to the dizzy dame down at Nat's bar who sees in him a fellow lost soul and, perhaps, the path to her own redemption. All he sees in her is someone he can mooch for another ten bucks.
Milland's Birnam takes and takes and takes, giving nothing back except the selfish desire to drink and cry over the writing career that once seemed so promising. There are crippling monologues describing the paranoid thoughts of a drunk, the fear one has that any morning may in fact turn out to be a Sunday, with liquor stores closed and bars opening late. A famous montage of increasing desperation ends with Birnam deciding to hock his typewriter, only to learn it is Yom Kippur and all the pawn shops are closed. Through it all he wears rumpled suits, smokes non-filtereds from a soft pack, is addressed as "Mr. Boi-num", and begins sentences with "Say,". Plus there's the near-Shock Corridor scenes in the hospital's withdrawal ward, where grown men whimper like children and cry out, "Beetles! Everywhere! Ya gotta help me, doc!"
The point is, if you're gonna destroy yourself, do it with a little pizazz and style.
Let's stick with that word “style.” Surely there are some truly irresponsible movies that present dependence on drinking in a positive light, right? There are two classics that instantly spring to mind.
I still remember seeing Arthur (the real Arthur, not the dipshit Russell Brand Arthur) in the theaters as a really young kid. I was completely oblivious to the fact that he was drunk. I guess I was a stupid kid; I thought that Arthur was just a noisy, funny, pain-in-the-ass, kinda like Woody Woodpecker, and it wasn't until some time later I realized that he was a souse!
Arthur is the story of a spoiled but lovable drunken millionaire who has everything in the world except the love of a good, honest woman. Think of an emotionally crippled Richie Rich. The first act affords the brilliant Dudley Moore plenty of screen time to stumble around Manhattan society sucking down booze and cackling. For years after Arthur's 1981 release one could not go to a party without hearing some joker try and affect his slurring-Brit voice (the oft-quoted line being, "You mean you're a hooker? I thought I was doing great with you!?!")
Moore spent years perfecting this bit, both as a world class lush and, as part of Derek and Clive, an astoundingly funny act from him and fellow alcoholic Peter Cook (who died somewhat young of liver disease.) Arthur is not just schtick, though. There are some touching relationships, particularly between Minnelli and her working class father and between Moore and his over-the-top patrician butler played by Sir John Gielgud. Also of note, everyone ends up happy and no one has to go through the DTs.
But for drunken elegance there are really only two words, and those words are Nick and Nora. There are a whole bunch of Thin Man movies and I get 'em all confused, but the first one, the best one, simply called The Thin Man, proves that you can be blitzed out of your skull and solve crimes at the same time.
This 1934 comedy-thriller based on a Dashiell Hammett novel is big honkin' Hollywood Mann's Chinese Theater stuff with William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles, so it's understandable that there may be resistance to dig this one up. Trust me when I say it is hilarious and daring and really clever. Line up a few martinis and you'll be quickly reminded how everyone is oh so charming and droll when plastered.
With that I hope I've done all I can to scare you away from those two most awful concepts, sobriety and moderation. More importantly, the next round's on you.